Common Hour; Dr. Nicholas Bonneau: Accounting for the Dead: A Biography of the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia Cemetery, 1722–1859 and 2016–2023

February 02 11:30 am – 12:35 pm

Mayser Gymnasium

**Common Hour will resume in-person this semester with a number of events featuring a lunch of pizza! This week's Common Hour will have lunch thanks to the generous contribution from the F&M President's Office. ** 

BYO Water Bottle!

**Face masks are encouraged at this event**

In late 2016 an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer announced the discovery of human remains at a PMC Property Group construction site at 218 Arch Street. The building site had been designated for religious service and burial from at least 1692 until 1859, first as a Keithian Quaker meetinghouse and then, from 1707 to 1855, as home of the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia. Archival sources record burials dating from at least 1709. The site had been abandoned when the First Baptist Church moved to a new building on Broad and Arch Streets in 1855. In 1859, church trustees purchased a small plot at Mount Moriah Cemetery within which to reinter all burials not claimed by a descendant. Unbeknownst to the city until its rediscovery in 2016, the overwhelming majority of at least 3000 burials were never moved to Mount Moriah. Our team of volunteer archaeologists, historians, and students have rescued the remains of approximately 500 individuals since construction crews first uncovered the burial ground—remains still in the care of the Arch Street Project. 

A great many questions, however, remain unanswered—questions cutting to the very heart of the archaeological and historical research conducted by the Arch Street Project. Among the most important of these: Are the living responsible for the care of the dead? And if so, how far may this responsibility extend? As Principal Historian for the project, I have spent the last five years conducting and leading research revealing much about this site and the individuals interred within in the hope of identifying those remains and reconnecting the deceased individuals with their living descendants and descendant communities. More recently we have combined my archival and data-based historical investigations with modern technologies of skeletal, DNA, and isotopic analysis to great success. But where do we go from here? The law and our professional codes of ethics provide little clear direction. Join me as I present a history of this community of the dead and our efforts to honor their memory and their desired peaceful rest.


Nicholas E. Bonneau is a historian of science, medicine, environment, and death, with a particular interest in the demographic, emotional, and cultural legacies of epidemics in the modern United States. He earned his PhD in History at the University of Notre Dame and has been a visiting lecturer at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County for the past two years. He is now a visiting scholar at Franklin and Marshall College, where he has taught courses in the history of public health and the history of science. 

Dr. Bonneau has received fellowships from a wide variety of institutions, including the National Science Foundation, the University of Pennsylvania, the American Antiquarian Society, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, and the Congregational Library and Archives. He was the 2016–17 Carpenter Fellow in Early American Religious Studies at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies and remains a Research Associate at the University of Pennsylvania and consulting scholar at the Mütter Research Institute of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. He is also a practitioner in the field of public history and his most recent project, “Spit Spreads Death: The Influenza Pandemic of 1919–19 in Philadelphia,” (October 2019 through 2024 at the Mütter Museum) earned his team the American Association for State and Local History’s 2020 Award for Excellence and Leadership in History (AASLH). Dr. Bonneau currently serves as Principal Historian of the Arch Street Project.

This week's Common Hour is sponsored by the President's Office, the History Department, the American Studies Department, and the Department of Science, Technology, and Society.